Miral, an adaptation of Rula Jebreal’s coming of age story of an orphaned Palestinian girl growing up in the wake of the Arab-Israeli War, has become a hot button film for director Julian Schnabel. When the painter/filmmaker showed the film to the MPAA, he got an R for upsetting images (he was able to have the rating overturned to PG-13). Before showing it at the United Nations this week, he had to first respond to a public letter of protest from the American Jewish Committee. Here, Schnabel discusses his personal awakening to Israel’s controversial settlement policy, one he feels has turned Palestinians into second class citizens in the name of security.
DEADLINE: Were any members of the American Jewish Committee at the screening?
SCHNABEL: I asked from the stage and no one responded. I invited them and thought it would be good for them to see it. It was such a beautiful evening, a 45-foot screen in the middle of the General Assembly. There were 1600 people. Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Steve Buscemi and Josh Brolin showed up in solidarity, along with artists like Ross Bleckner, David Salle. And Vanessa Redgrave, who a long time ago got in a lot of trouble for saying something in support of Palestinian people at the Oscars. I remember being a kid when she said that, and everybody being so pissed off, saying just because you’re an actress getting an award doesn’t mean you should have a thought or a political point of view. I think Paddy Chayevsky said that. He was a brilliant, but it’s very easy to pick on somebody who speaks up.
DEADLINE: Why was it important for you to show Miral there?
SCHNABEL: That’s the platform for dialogue for the whole world. It’s the place where conflicts are sorted out, and it’s where Israel was born in 1948. There is a global non-violent revolution going on in the Middle East, with dictators falling everywhere because people want to be free. It’s true not only in countries that have been in the news, but also in Israel. I think a non-violent Democratic revolution is coming. Young people are tired of their leaders, tired of Hamas, tired of leaders who have been representing the Palestinians. Israelis are tired, and many Jewish people are tired of the leaders leading that country. We need a statesman over there, not a politician. Netanyahu isn’t going to solve anything when he exacerbates things by saying they’re going to build more settlements because people are killed.
DEADLINE: You mean his reaction to the terrorist murder of a Jewish family in the settlement while they slept?
SCHNABEL: I feel terrible those people were killed, but to justify it with that creates more hate. For President Obama to veto the notion that it would be illegal to do that, I’m extremely disappointed in him. He’s a guy I believe in. I loved when he came out initially against the settlements and his speech in Egypt generated the sense of possibility for democracy. He gives great speeches, but what the hell is going on? We can’t let the Jewish lobby create this blind, blanket support of something that’s inhumane. We’re not free, as long as that continues. My mother was the head of Hadassah, and I believe in the Jewish homeland as a democratic place, but for everyone who lives there. You shouldn’t have to be Jewish to be free in Israel. The Palestinians are not our enemies. The whole civil society is held hostage by fanatics on both sides. Young people, Israelis and Palestinians, just want to be able to go to school and come home at the end of the day and not get blown up. There are a lot of young people who are soldiers and don’t want to be soldiers. Does anyone want to be a soldier?
DEADLINE: No, but there are undeniable security concerns behind this. Having made the movie, what do you think the answer is for a peaceful solution in the settlement areas?
SCHNABEL: First of all, they have to stop building these settlements. Take them out. That’s not a military solution, it has to be a humanitarian solution. It is like black people living in the United States in 1960. It is apartheid, that’s what it’s like over there. It is shocking. I didn’t want to say these things when I made the movie. I wanted people to look at the movie as a work of art. But now I see it as a vessel, about opening your heart, understanding, and non-violent solutions. There are things that are controversial in the film, things that are shocking to see. But it is so light in the context of what really goes on. Under the guise of state security, a little girl can’t go to school. The orphanage depicted in the film had 3000 girls at its peak, and there’s hardly anybody in it now. Because of the wall, the security fence that goes all around these illegal settlements and makes life impossible for the Palestinian people. It kills any kind of industry they could have. Only Jewish people can drive to Jerusalem in 15 minutes. These other people, it takes hours for them to get anywhere. It is totally dehumanizing and unacceptable. I was so ashamed of my people, so ashamed to see somebody throw a rock at a young man, hit him in the head, while two soldiers are watching. A young Hasidic kid throws a rock at a Palestinian guy, who hits the ground. And soldiers are standing there, watching this happen, and they don’t do anything. Our tax dollars are paying for this. The government is paying for two soldiers for every settler.
DEADLINE: Why does an American filmmaker who’s Jewish take on subject matter like this that is told from the perspective of a Palestinian?
SCHNABEL: When I read this book by Rula Jebreal, what struck me was it was about a family. This could happen to anybody. This little girl, her mother commits suicide. Her father, who’s much older and not really her biological father, feels she can be saved if she goes to this school. The school was started in 1948, after the Deir Yassin Massacre, which I’d never heard of. The Irgun and the Haganah together wiped out a village and the Palestinians left because they were terrified they were going to be killed. I said to Rula, what did the Arabs do to the Jews for that to happen? She said, what do you mean? Well, it was a concept of depopulation. And when the Palestinians left, Nasser says, “Leave, and we’ll kill all the Jews and then you can come back.” That was a terrible, idiotic thing to say. It created the most famous line everybody spouts, that “they just want to push the Jews into the sea.” Basically because we have such a fear– we say “never again” about the Holocaust– there’s this overcompensation and it’s a justification for inhumane brutality. The battle is so uneven over there that we have just become barbarians. I spent January to June making this film all over Israel. Being there, there’s just such a flagrant disrespect for the dignity of the Palestinian people there. It’s really like they are not even second class citizens. It is shocking.
DEADLINE: How were you treated, a Jewish filmmaker shooting in Jerusalem on this subject matter?
SCHNABEL: When I was shooting, I was treated in an excellent way. The mayor of Jerusalem said, ‘How can I help?’ I said, “Don’t ask me too many questions, just let me do what I need to.” He said, “Will you make Jerusalem look beautiful?” I said yes. I don’t think a Jewish person has ever been in Al-Aqsa Mosque, but they let me shoot there. We closed the streets to shoot around the Lions Gate, and doing that is crazy. The mayor of Jerusalem said he was proud, that this showed we are the only democracy in the Middle East where this could happen. I agree, but democracy has to be for everybody, not just Jewish people. We’ve been the object of prejudice for such a long time, we understand that better than anybody. But people don’t want to know that’s going on. Is it a crime to talk about it, or is it a crime to do it? As American Jews, we need to question the Jewish lobby. We need to stop giving the money to the Israelis to build these settlements. I’m telling you Mike, if you and I were standing there, in Hebron, watching, you would be mortified. There are children who have to walk to school through a graveyard at 4 o’clock in the morning because they’ll get beat up if they walk through town. My mother told me, go to Israel when you have your Bar Mitzvah, you’ll have this special feeling. I didn’t do it at the time. I want to have that special feeling my mother talked about. This is our homeland. But to be our homeland, we have to live with the people who were there before, in a Democratic way. We can’t just take. Sharon said, “You have to grab every bit of land you can. What we don’t take, is theirs.” It’s a quote. What kind of leadership is that? My goal was not to show that horrible things are happening. I condemn all violence, I don’t condone it on either side. There’s a moment in the film where this young girl sees a building being knocked down, everybody watching. There was a supposed terrorist who was the son of the people who lived in the building or the guy lived next door, but under the guise of state security, this building had to be knocked down. The day Obama was inaugurated, in East Jerusalem they knocked down 50 houses, and moved these Palestinian people to other places to live. Doesn’t that sound weird?
DEADLINE: Why did they knock down the 50 houses?
SCHNABEL: Good question. You should ask the mayor of Jerusalem.
DEADLINE: You say do away with those settlements. What do you put instead?
SCHNABEL: In my movie, at the time of the Oslo agreement, there is an activist who changes his mind about what he’s doing and is killed by Palestinians because he wants peace. He says, I don’t care about a one state solution or a two state solution, I just want to have a family, children. He says something that came from a guy who was in jail for 17 years. “When I was in jail I realized that my jailer’s fears were the same as mine. Our allies are not the Arab regimes, and not the United Nations, they’re the Israelis themselves.” There are many Israelis that feel this way. I saw it because I worked there with Israelis whose kids are going to school with Palestinian kids in experiments where people live together, and it is working. It can work. In the movie, the young girl sees the demolition in the refugee camp, and she gets involved with a political group. All the kids did this. These groups start as peaceful manifestations that got exacerbated into violence. Anybody who witnessed these things could fall into the same trap; it’s just the way things work.
DEADLINE: Controversy always helps sell movies on serious subjects. Is the provocative reception an opportunity or a burden?
SCHNABEL: It’s a platform. I didn’t understand the implications at the beginning of this journey. I never make a movie to illustrate what I already knew, I make a movie to find out about my subject, whether it’s discovering Cuba by making Before Night Falls or learning about locked-in syndrome making The Diving Bell And The Butterfly. I won a Sloan Award for science. I don’t know a damn thing about science but I know how to ask questions.
DEADLINE: Contrast your own view of the occupation before, and how you feel now after making this movie?
SCHNABEL: It was an epiphany. I was totally naïve, totally in the dark and I believe so many of the American Jewish population are totally in the dark. We cannot believe that a Jewish person would behave like that. It’s not the Jewish way. We have suffered so much that if anybody should understand the Palestinian problem, it should be Jewish people. It was so disappointing and ashamed at certain moments. I was at the airport one day, leaving with Rula. I respect the security, when they check your bags. But they took her bags and put them through an X-ray machine not once but three times. We went to a second checkpoint and they made her strip and, the last minute, let her come on the airplane Jon Kilik and I were taking. And it felt just like apartheid, there was absolutely no reason for it. It was pure racism and prejudice. It was cruel and I was ashamed of everybody in that airport. We went to Egypt, where she did a television program because she’s a political analyst. She asked questions, and people from the regime censored her. She did not find paradise over there, either. There was a guy from state security who actually said, you can’t put that on television. Another time, she was told people would be arrested if she did. The people in Egypt couldn’t take that anymore. We basically have a democracy in Israel that deals with a dictator like Mubarak, who supports the borders. And you’ve got maybe 1.5 million people living in Gaza in what are open air prisons. Last week, a couple of fisherman got too close to the line where they’re not supposed to be, and they were shot. What kind of a thing is that? Is that human? But I didn’t know a damned thing about any of this before. This film is disruptive, but it’s about making peace and creating empathy. I told the story as best I could, and I’m responsible for everything I’ve done and everything I’ve said. That’s the difference between an artist and a journeyman filmmaker. If controversy helps people see this film, I’m okay with that.
DEADLINE: Where do you go from here?
SCHNABEL: I want this film to have its moment in the sun, I want critics and journalists to write about it. Then I want to paint a lot, just paint and not make another movie for awhile.